Manitoba·Opinion

Plant-based athletes should inspire the rest of us

Venus Williams, NBA star Kyrie Irving, U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan, much of the Tennessee Titans NFL team and a growing number of Olympians all thrive on plant-based diets. If they can do it, what's stopping the rest of us?

If Blue Bombers, top-ranked tennis players and basketball stars can do it, why can't the rest of us?

Winnipeg Blue Bomber John Rush says eating an exclusively plant-based diet allows him to play better and recover faster than ever before. (www.davidlipnowski.com)

What started out as a temporary tactic to cut weight has, for Winnipeg Blue Bomber John Rush, evolved into a lifestyle he now claims makes him a better athlete and the world a bit of a better place. 

Rush says eating an exclusively plant-based diet allows him to lift more, play better and recover faster than ever before — and he's not alone. 

Other pro athletes have been publicly gushing about the benefits of a plant-based diet of late.

"I do eat plant-based. I think that's one of the reasons why I recover well. I don't have allergies that I used to have anymore, and I like it," tennis star Novak Djokovic told EuroNews after recently winning a four-hour match to earn his fifth Wimbledon men's singles title.

Venus Williams, NBA star Kyrie Irving, U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan, much of the Tennessee Titans NFL team and a growing number of Olympians, bodybuilders, boxers, race car drivers, etc. all thrive on plants.

Novak Djokovic, who recently won a gruelling Wimbledon finals against Roger Federer, says he adheres to a plant-based diet. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

So if they can do it, what's stopping the rest of us? Especially with so many benefits, even far beyond physical fitness.

Rush, a Canadian fullback in his third season with the Bombers, says that despite long being told he needed to eat meat in order to perform at an elite level, he finds it easy to fulfill nutritional requirements without animal products and succeed as a pro athlete.

"The science behind being plant-based and athletic performance is massive," he says. "It's undeniable."

Manitoba registered dietician Angela Tucker agrees.

"One of the big athletic benefits is that plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes are rich in antioxidants, which help the body's cells recover after exercise."  

Athletes may also be motivated by the health benefits, "such as the decreased risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer," she says.

Kyrie Irving is among the athletes who eat a plant-based diet. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Rush believes eating plant-based also has helped reduce issues with arthritis in his knees.

"It is amazing to see someone that is able to perform at a high physical ability on a diet that is based on plants," Tucker says. "It forces us to recognize that we don't need animal protein to be strong and fit."

A 2018 documentary produced by James Cameron, called The Game Changers, is all about plant-based athletes. It features Olympic athletes, the Miami Dolphins football team, German Strongman competitor Patrik Baboumian and others. It is scheduled to play one night in Winnipeg, Sept. 16 at Cineplex Odeon on McGillivray.

But for Rush, eating plant-based is not only about his physical health. It's also about ethics, and doing good for the world around him.

An avid dog lover and volunteer with various Winnipeg animal shelters and rescues, Rush says that learning how pigs are considered to have greater intelligence than dogs changed his perspective on animals used for food. 

"You think about what's happening in these slaughterhouses, and you think, 'Wow, we should not be doing this,'" he says. 

"If you've ever owned a dog, you should know that these other animals are very aware of what's about to happen to them."

Alex Morgan of the U.S. women's national soccer team also eats a plant-based diet. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Two years after going what he calls "cold Tofurkey," Rush now considers himself not only a plant-based athlete, but an ethical vegan, someone who "seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose," according to the Vegan Society.

An "added bonus," he says, "is being vegan is like the best thing you can do for the environment."

He's right. In the face of looming climate chaos, environmental scientists have been increasingly naming animal agriculture as a leading global contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater pollution, deforestation, ocean destruction, loss of wildlife, loss of biodiversity and loss of space.

Research has also shown that switching to a plant-based diet can cut one's diet-associated greenhouse gas emissions and water footprints in half, and if everyone did it, 75 per cent less farmland would be needed to feed everyone.

Added bonus, indeed.

"Pick one day a week to go vegan. Do a meatless Monday, and make yourself make a new recipe for every meal," Rush says to anyone, particularly other athletes, interested in veganism.

"Do your research, make sure you're getting all your protein, you're getting your nutrients, until you have 10 to 15 meals you feel comfortable making, find super easy and are delicious."

As more pro athletes make the switch to plant-based diets, whether for performance or ethical reasons, they offer the rest of us proof that surviving and thriving without animal products is not only doable, but beneficial — even enjoyable — for a variety of reasons.

If they can do it, surely the rest of us can too. Now is certainly the time.

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